Rocky Hill Paintbrush (1971)

Object submitted by Laurel Bowers ’71 Husain
Story by Catherine Black ’94

This paintbrush was used by members of the Class of 1971 to paint their class number on the face of Rocky Hill. For students in the late 1990s onward, this ritual may not sound familiar, but for decades prior to the administration’s decision to ban it in 1994, painting one’s graduating year for all to see was one of the most public forms of class rivalry at Punahou School.

“It was about having your year visible, for everyone to see, above the campus,” remembers Laurel Bowers ’71 Husain. “And just the fun of getting together as a group and going up there stealthily at night with a mission.”

This paintbrush was used by members of the Class of 1971 to paint their class number on the face of Rocky Hill. For students in the late 1990s onward, this ritual may not sound familiar, but for decades prior to the administration’s decision to ban it in 1994, painting one’s graduating year for all to see was one of the most public forms of class rivalry at Punahou School.

“It was about having your year visible, for everyone to see, above the campus,” remembers Laurel Bowers ’71 Husain. “And just the fun of getting together as a group and going up there stealthily at night with a mission.”

Prior to the 1990s, the painting of Rocky Hill was regarded as fairly benign mischief. Husain remembers that it was an ongoing activity, with frequent nocturnal visits up to the bare rock face of Pu‘u o Manoa that resulted in a constant rotation of numbers (with most of the competition between junior and senior classes) throughout the school year. In fact, many Oahuans from the 1960s and 1970s include photos of students laughingly leaving their mark, including Class of 1971 foreign exchange student from Finland – Kai Wartiainen – who appears in the 1971 edition perched atop a ladder and posing in the act of painting.

The 1978 – 1979 Punahou Catalogue noted that, “One of the main objects of junior-senior rivalry is Rocky Hill. Obviously, some established rules must be obeyed for safe, sane and non-destructive activity in this area.” The rules included off-limits hours (10 p.m. – 6 a.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 p.m. – 6 a.m. Friday through Sunday) and the clarification that freshmen and sophomores were forbidden on Rocky Hill “at ALL times, including Senior Skip Day,” with punishment of a $50 fine payable to the senior class for all violations. Ka Punahou reported in 1951 that freshman and sophomore violations of the Rocky Hill rule were punishable by the Student Court. There was a polite allowance for Rocky Hill painting for juniors during the two days of Carnival, and for seniors during senior week.

College Counselor Myron Arakawa ’66 remembers that, “In the 1964 – 1965 school year, there was an incident on Rocky Hill, just before Carnival. Juniors, traditionally, attempted to paint over the seniors number on Rocky Hill just before Carnival. This time, the seniors were ready to protect their turf, and a bunch of ’65 guys lay in wait on Thursday night, and ‘attacked’ the ’66ers with umbrellas and other ‘weapons.’ If I remember correctly, there was a cartoon of Daryl Sato ’65 in Ka Punahou afterwards, characterized as a samurai in a striking pose with his sword umbrella.”

Over the years, the disturbances suffered by neighbors on Kakela Place and Kakela Drive provoked a number of iterations of rules to bar entrance to Rocky Hill from those streets, but the problems persisted nonetheless. By the 1990s, the intensity of class confrontations on Rocky Hill had escalated and there may have been at least one instance of students jumping off the steep cliff face to escape the threat of oncoming seniors.

The definitive moment came the night before Carnival in 1994, when a major skirmish in the neighboring streets involving large quantities of eggs (many of which landed on residents’ cars and houses) provoked a call to the police from longtime resident Richard Fassler.

As he noted in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997, “It was about 3:30 in the morning when we were awakened by a raw egg hitting the side of the house. We could hear someone running through our yard and then laughter as four or five people ran down the street. We thought it might be a gang fight – we were pretty wary in those days because of the serial rapist of Manoa. We didn’t know who they were, so we called the police. It was complete chaos for the next hour as the police flushed out about 20 youngsters who were hiding in bushes and garages.”

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Class of 1971 foreign exchange student from Finland – Kai Wartiainen – perched atop a ladder and posing in the act of painting a “’71” on the face of Rocky Hill.

When the blue lights appeared, the students scattered but a number of unlucky ones (the author of this piece included) didn’t get far before the law officers lined them up on the curbside for an angry earful – their parents were eventually called to come pick them up. Nearly two dozen seniors faced an “F” in citizenship, which was raised to “D” after participation in two weekends of community service in the homes, streets and gardens of the neighborhood residents.

As a result of the fiasco, the painting of Rocky Hill was officially banned by the School. It had already been a simmering issue among the deans for years because of growing safety concerns, and the latest escapade was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Bob Badham, dean for the Class of 1994 at the time, remembers that, “Rocky Hill had been off-limits in the past, but if a group of kids went up there and didn’t get caught, that sort of perpetuated the notion that you could still do it. I think that the mistake that the Class of ’94 made was that there were so many of them.” When cleaning out his office at retirement, one of the objects Badham uncovered was a pair of hedge clippers left over from the many hours of hauling junk, trimming hedges and painting houses during the community service, which he participated in alongside the guilty students. “I felt responsible for them, as if they were my own kids and that it was the right thing to do,” he says, “even though some of my colleagues criticized me for doing so.”

One unanticipated outcome of the debacle was a new neighborhood garden on McKinley Street. During the community service, Fassler tasked a group of students with clearing weeds and moving rocks to create a garden in an overgrown patch of empty City and County property. “It was hard work, and I was satisfied that they had paid their dues,” he said. For two decades, the garden thrived under Fassler’s care and became a favorite neighborhood spot, complete with a Bodhi tree and a statue of Kwan Yin. Unfortunately in 2014, the garden was found to be in violation of zoning laws and the neighbors were forced to dismantle it, after considerable protest. “It’s like taking a sledgehammer and applying it to my house and being asked to tear down the house,” Fassler told Hawai‘i News Now at the time.

The Other Side of Rocky Hill – a Treasure Tank

While the painted face of Pu‘u o Manoa that overlooks Punahou’s campus is what most people associate with Rocky Hill, its other side – facing back toward Manoa Valley – contains a fascinating story in its own right. Many know that “the Tank” is where used clothing and other items are stored and sorted for later sale in the White Elephant tent at Carnival. But few know of its past uses as a water reservoir and blood bank for the Red Cross of Hawai‘i.

In 1913, the Trustees of O‘ahu College deeded 25,000 square feet of Rocky Hill to the Territory of Hawai‘i to build a concrete reservoir that would act as a major water source for lower Manoa and nearby neighborhoods. In exchange, Punahou was given free water for fire protection (this was the one portion of campus that did not draw water from Ka Punahou itself). The reservoir was built with a capacity of 726,000 gallons.

In 1928 the Territory placed the Rocky Hill reservoir on reserve status, and in 1935 the Boy Scouts of America requested use of the dry reservoir as a meeting place. During WWII, the Army secured a right-of-entry for a command post to be occupied only in the event of actual combat. It was later used by the Army as a storage area for thousands of tires until 1946.

In 1948, Rocky Hill was conveyed back to Punahou School in exchange for 126 acres of forest land at Kokowalu, Manoa. The Tank became a storage area for Punahou’s stage sets, equipment and furniture.

In 1952, with the Cold War looming ominously over the nation’s imagination, the Tank became the home for a standby Blood Bank, in case the main blood storage area at Queen’s Hospital was inaccessible. The Tank was equipped with refrigeration units, sinks, work counters and equipment for handling up to 1,200 blood donors a day. At this time, a mezzanine was built so that Punahou students could use the Tank as an air raid shelter in case of attack.

In 1961, the Tank once again began to accommodate items needing storage from campus, including the growing number of donations for Punahou Carnival, become the official headquarters for one of Carnival’s largest sources of income: The White Elephant.

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